Leaderless = Leaderfull


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I’ve devoted a number of my posts to the topic of leader development. In this post, I’d like to say more about what I mean by leader development because my thinking doesn’t come from a view that leaders are solely those at the top of organisations. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, when I talk about leaders and leadership, I’m not simply thinking about businesses that organise themselves around hierarchies, far from it. The thing about leader development is that it is people development. My belief is that the new age we are currently on the cusp of will be dominated less and less by hierarchies and more by relationships and collaboration and this calls us to develop ourselves accordingly. This new construct is still forming, but many businesses are feeling the power that comes from interconnectedness; a kind of people power that hierarchical organisations would only dream of, if they could just let go of an Industrial Age paradigm about human groups.

In recent months, there has been a fair amount of analysis of the so-called “leaderless” movements of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements around the world. The Occupy movements seem to be dissolving both in number and in our consciousness. Much of what I have read seems to indicate that their breakups rest on the fact that they lacked coherent leadership and their failure to clearly articulate their demands. In a lot of ways, there is some truth to this. However, one thing I see in these movements is seeds of a new kind of community in which leaderless actually means leader-full. We are just flexing our muscles.

I was pleased to attend a workshop by Etienne Wenger some years ago, in which he set out his thinking around Communities of Practice. He defines Communities of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” His model is applied in the area of social learning, however I would say his thinking is applicable much wider to include social and organisational change. For Wenger, learning is central to human identity and he sees its primary focus as social participation. His model shows that a CoP will have three elements that bind them together: domain, community and practice. Domain is a shared area of interest, i.e. this is not just a loose network of people who like each other. They have a common purpose, e.g. software developers or wine enthusiasts. Community emerges from the active participation of every member of the CoP; sharing of information, offering help and building relationships. There are no tourists in a CoP, there is active engagement. The practice is the set of capabilities or skills the members enact that indicates they are fully fledged members of the CoP. Over time, members develop a shared repertoire of tools, knowledge, language and strategies that indicate they not only have a common interest, but they actually do something in common, e.g. they take turns to hold wine tastings or they work together on developing new iPhone apps.

How is this related to leadership?

Our current understanding of what leadership means is still largely drawn from conventions of how organisations have been structured in our recent history. This makes sense; if we have some ways of behaving that are driven by our beliefs, until our beliefs shift, our behaviours will pretty much remain static. Organisations are only just coming to glimpse the kind of structures that are much more fit for purpose, Communities of Practice being just one. We have a very long inheritance of organisational structure from our industrial and military past and for a long period in our history, this suited the needs of an industrial society. Organising human endeavour with a leader at the top and a rigid hierarchy below has meant that we tend to think of leaders only as those with leadership title or those at the so-called “top”. Leaders make decisions, leaders are accountable, leaders lead while others follow. This structure naturally lends itself to a command and control way of thinking and behaving and in the days of the early industrial revolution, this suited the needs of businesses. The tasks involved in driving a successful business were best organised with the head telling the rest of the body what to do and how to do it. We didn’t need huge amounts of creativity and autonomy to reside in the lower structures; all they needed to do was what they were told because the higher-ups had the end goals in their sights. Similarly, militaries need that command and control structure in order to carry out their role effectively. We couldn’t have foot soldiers deciding how they wanted to go about their job, otherwise we wouldn’t have the kind of strength and order a fighting force needs; it needs to be single-minded, not multi-minded. So, in essence, form followed function.

Even in the early days of Christianity, orthodoxy took hold and dispensed with the more liberal, personal forms of spirituality. For example, Gnosticism, a movement based on personal religious experience and transcendence arrived at by internal, intuitive means, was vilified as blasphemous and dangerous, and the Church, with the Pope as its head, became the final arbiter for all matters moral, social and spiritual. With the leader in place, there was no need for individuals to ponder about their morality; as long as they did what the priest/bishop/Pope told them to do, they would have happy and ordered lives, with the added bonus of a similarly joyous afterlife. No need to question, no need to work it out for yourself. The Protestant Reformation injected a new brand of thinking into the mix, with believers thinking that they could perhaps have a direct line to God, rather than through the mediator-priest. Even so, the predominant social structures in place at the time meant that eventually, most Protestant churches eventually defaulted to some form of leadership hierarchy, and those that didn’t were considered fringe movements.

In the same manner of form following function, industrial/military societies have organised their education systems to provide adequate preparedness to enter a largely hierarchical workforce. No real need to teach critical thinking skills, no real need to provide opportunities for meaningful personal growth, as long as you could read, write and add up. Of course, I’m generalising, but on the whole, industrial/military societies provided, and to a shockingly great extent, still provide sausage factory schooling. Because these three influences (the industrial, the military and the social/spiritual) were so pervasive, it makes complete sense that they were so instrumental in setting up a worldview that still largely holds sway today.

The world is rapidly changing however.

In a recent TEDx talk, former UK Liberal Democrat Party leader Paddy Ashdown sets out some interesting, if not particularly new, ideas about a new world power structure emerging. While his talk focusses more on global governance and international power shifts, some of the points he makes are salient and relevant to all kinds of leadership and organisation. If we consider that leadership and power are inextricably linked, we can look to the Occupy movements as some indication of where we might be headed. Power, in the sense of potency to act, is becoming more diffuse, whether governments like it or not. In response there will naturally be reaction, but I believe the tide is surely turning. While the Occupy movements may not have catalysed immediate changes to global financial or economic systems, I believe they signal a new kind of active involvement in society and growing desire for power to be spread more widely.

Ashdown suggests that we are coming back to an age where global governance is carried out via treaties. He quotes Lord Palmerston saying, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This is ringing true in the world of business. The BizDojo in Auckland, New Zealand is but one example of professional people coming together in a pragmatic way to share expertise, collaborate on one-off projects and create a fresh new business community. These knowledge workers know that rigid vertical hierarchies are not the best way to organise themselves. The strength comes from the power of their networks. To quote Ashdown again, “In the modern age where everything is connected to everything, the most important thing about what you can do is what you can do with others.”

So what does this have to do with leadership then?

Remember I said that our traditional notions of leadership have come from the hierarchical ways we have organised ourselves. If our power structures are shifting, so will leadership. While the Occupy movements have been called leaderless by most commentators in the media, I’m not so sure. Leaderless if we look at the movements through old lenses, true; there was nobody at the “top” because there was no top. I think this new social construct will call upon us to shift our ideas as to what a leader is. In a previous blog, I suggested, for example, that a customer service employee who connects with a dissatisfied customer, preventing them from going to your competitor, is exercising just as much leadership as the person with CEO on their door. Leader development is people development and people development is leader development.

Power is certainly spreading out to the people. With more diffuse power, we will all be called upon to exercise leadership. Strong and effective Communities of Practice consist of people with a wide repertoire of personal characteristics and capabilities that in the old days, might have sat with a privileged few. Everyone exercises some form of leadership, however the new paradigm of leadership is not about managing hierarchies, but about influencing, collaborating and relating.

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and The Spider, paints a potent picture of decentralised organisations. Decentralised systems, they say, “have no clear leader, no hierarchy and no headquarters. If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others.” However, I contend, they do exercise influence. This points to a key leadership capability that we all require more of as the old makes way for the new. People at work will not only require some kind of professional skill set or technical expertise, but they will also need a well developed set of personal capabilities, those which we term “emotional intelligence”. This is not limited to freelancers or small business owners, but to anyone working in the Knowledge Economy. I believe that many businesses will see the benefits of reorganising with a more diffuse power base that unlocks the leadership and creativity of more of those who work within them.

In this article in December’s Harvard Business Review, Gary Hamel poses the question, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve high levels of coordination without without a supervisory superstructure?” I think he’s on to something. With highly developed leader capabilities all over organisations, leadership (the practice) will emerge from the interactions and relationships between leaders (the people). Again, I’m intending leaders to be those with authority and accountability. It then behoves organisations and individuals to devote themselves to sound capability development of the kind I hinted at earlier. These would include developing greater empathy, greater abilities to listen, greater abilities to collaborate, greater abilities to problem-solve with others, greater abilities to self-manage and, of course, greater self-awareness. As Paddy Ashdown says, the most important bit about the structure then becomes your docking points-your connections with others; not your hierarchy.

Finally, I think it’s important to recap a point I have made in previous articles, that is, that a new paradigm of organisations will not simply do away with the old. The new construct will include and transcend the current one, so we will still find that some organisations work best with a hierarchical structure or a command-and-control style of leadership. However, they will be best applied when they fit the purpose of the organisation. I suspect, for example, that local emergency management structures will require a command-and-control style of leadership in crisis situations. I, for one, would prefer that a highly efficient response team deals with a natural disaster or fire to one that organises itself on the basis of peer consultation.

I have set out just a few of my thoughts and reflections in this article and, as always, am keen to read what you can add and build onto what I have written. I’m no expert, and I suspect there isn’t one anyway. We are in immersed in the unknown right now and the New Normal will come about from all of our contributions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


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